National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce

Mining weather data from Civil War-era Navy logbooks

Image from the US library of Congress of US Navy steam frigate USS Wabash
January 18, 2018

On Wednesday, January 4, 2018, the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation publicly announced that 14 projects have been selected for the 2017 Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives awards. One of the funded projects, Seas of Knowledge: Digitization and Retrospective Analysis of the Historical Logbooks of the United States Navy, is led by Kevin Wood, research scientist with the University of Washington Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean and NOAA PMEL. This new grant will allow these scientists to learn more about past climate from the records of long-gone mariners. The project will digitize the logbooks, muster rolls and related materials from U.S. naval vessels, focusing on the period from 1861 to 1879. Access to historical data is essential for understanding both past and current events, especially in the ocean domain where important geospatial, environmental, and social/cultural data are found only in manuscript formats inaccessible to computers.

After making digital images of the logbooks housed at the National Archives, the project will recover ships’ positions, weather records, oceanographic data and other historical information through the Old Weather citizen-science program that trains volunteers to transcribe the logs’ handwritten entries. So far volunteers have transcribed more than 3 million new-to-science weather records, and more than 1 million of those have been quality-checked and added into global climate databases. This historic weather and climate data helps scientists better understand modern climate change patterns and improve prediction. The new effort seeks to fill a gap in the data of past weather and ocean conditions.

The project will also digitize the National Archives’ related collection of muster rolls that shows the names of all the enlisted sailors on board. When combined with logbooks that list the names of officers, this will provide historians and family researchers an online database of unprecedented detail and a window into day-to-day life during this period in history, Wood said. The grant also will support an educational effort that will allow the public to explore the information uncovered in the ships’ logbooks through an interactive exhibit.

Other investigators on the project are Mark Mollan at the National Archives and Records Administration, Patrick Madden at the National Archives Foundation and, Gilbert Compo at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado and NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory. 

This is the third group of projects to win a Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives award, which is supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The program supports the creation of digital representations of unique content of high scholarly significance that will be discoverable and usable as elements of a coherent, national collection. 

Read the full story here written by Hannah Hickey, science writer for the University of Washington, on the latest development in the Old Weather project. 

PMEL Project: